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One of the most common questions I get from friends and readers is, “How do you manage to pack everything you need for a multi-week trip into a carry-on bag?” If you’ve read any of our trip reports, you probably know that we are HUGE fans of packing light. We only bring what we can carry on the plane. This saves us time, money, frustration, and the hassle of possibly losing a checked bag. Traveling light is not complicated! With the right bag and the right strategy, anybody can travel with only a carry-on bag!
For this post, I will use our 2.5 week trip to Boston, Ireland, Scotland, London, and Paris as an example. I packed a single backpack, weighing approximately 30lbs, and Brooke packed a backpack and tote bag. We each used a slightly different packing strategy, which you can see in the videos at the end of this post. These are our top five tips for packing light.
Tip #1 – The Bag
Packing light begins with the bag. You have tons of options when selecting a bag for travel. Fortunately for you, we did a lot of research and found a great option. The bag that we both use is called the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Jr. This backpack is fantastic! Our favorite features are:
- Side Loading – Similar to a suitcase, you can unzip this backpack from the side, instead of the top. This gives easy access to your gear without having to dig through everything.
- Interior Shelf – The interior space includes a removable divider. Simply clip it in place and you create two separate compartments to stop your stuff from sinking to the bottom while walking.
- Compression Straps – Once you fill the bag, tighten down the compression straps to reduce the size significantly.
- Compartments – This bag includes well-designed compartments for easy access to your necessities during travel. I put everything I need to reach in the front and top compartments.
- Hidden Water Bottle Holder – One of the side pockets has a fold out water bottle holder, which is great for bringing a bottle to fill inside security at the airport.
You can pick this bag up on Amazon. Check out the packing videos at the bottom to see all of these features in action.
Tip #2 – Clothing
Clothing will likely make up the bulk of what you pack. You should really be intentional about which clothes you put into your bag. Keep the following things in mind:
Unless you are traveling to Milan to take part in a fashion show, nobody cares what your clothes look like! You do not need to pack a separate, fully constructed outfit for each day of your 17-day trip. Select a limited set of clothes in a neutral color palette – brown, khaki, gray, and shades of blue work well together. This way, you can wear each article of clothing with every other one. Mix and match to make different outfits if you want, but everything should work together.
Layers for Warmth
You should pack items that are appropriate for the climate where you will be traveling, but that doesn’t mean you should pack five bulky sweaters for a cool-weather trip! If you’re heading somewhere cool, a mid-weight, packable outer jacket will be plenty. You can gain added warmth by layering your clothing. Pack one or two light/mid-weight long-sleeved shirts and wear them under your t-shirts and jacket. One or two pairs of lightweight pants should be plenty.
Select “High Tech” Clothes
During our Eurotrip, we mostly packed clothing from Columbia (reviews). These items featured moisture wicking, odor-reducing, and breathable technology. The pants and shirts were very lightweight. My jacket of choice is a North Face Thermoball, which folds into a small pocket and doubles as a pillow for long flights.
For our trip to Australia/New Zealand, we will be testing some Merino Wool items. Merino Wool clothing is expensive, but the material provides odor prevention and temperature regulation, while remaining lightweight, durable, and comfortable. Stay tuned for our full review after the trip!
Wear Any Bulky Items While in Transit
When we move from place to place, we wear anything that doesn’t fit in our bags. For example, I always wore my Blundstone Boots (review) during flights, because they would not fit into my bag. Brooke wore her tennis shoes and packed her Ja-Vie flats (review). If you really want to bring a heavy coat, just put it on for the flights.
When you’re thinking through your clothing selection. Keep in mind that you can do laundry on the road. This simple fact can virtually cut your luggage burden in half! We pack a small Ziploc bag of powdered detergent. (NOT cocaine… Mr. TSA agent!)
If we don’t have laundry facilities available, we can easily do laundry in our hotel room. Dissolve the detergent in the bath tub, add the dirty clothes and swirl them around vigorously. To dry, place each clothing item inside a towel and walk over the towel to pull the moisture out. Hang to finish drying. This is where quick-dry clothing really helps!
Tip #3 – Electronics
Electronics are an essential part of life (and travel) these days. We recommend the following electronics –
- Smart Phone – Almost everyone has one, and it serves so many purposes during travel. Download offline Google Maps, and it’s your GPS. Need to take a quick picture, perfect. Find wifi, and use it to research points of interest in a new city. You can even read books with a Kindle app and watch movies during long flights!
- Canon G16 Camera – When you really want a great photo, you may need something other than your smart phone. This camera is compact and easy for beginners (like us) to use. Buy it certified refurbished and save big!
- GoPro HERO4 Silver – This durable little action camera is great, especially when the weather is crummy or you want some under-water shots. This is also the first model to include a viewing screen, which is very handy!
- Joby Gorillapod – With this little device, you can mount your phone, camera, or GoPro! This allowed Brooke and me to get great pictures with different landmarks, without having to rely on strangers to take our pics.
- Three-Outlet/Two-USB Surge Protector – Charging electronics can be a challenge, especially with limited outlets in airports. Bring this along to get juice for up to five devices at once!
- Universal Outlet Adapter – This is a necessity for world travel. As an added bonus, this adapter has two USB charging ports.
- Macbook Air – This is one of the lightest, most portable computers on the planet. It slides easily into the back pocket of the eBags pack and weighs only 2.5lbs! We use these to keep up with the website and to save our pictures each day. Buy certified refurbished and save big!
- Mini USB Drive(s) – Brooke and I each carry one of these little 128GB storage drive to back up our pictures. At the end of each day, we save that day’s photos and videos to both of our drives. We store the drives in our separate bags. That way, we have a backup copy if one of us loses a bag. This also prevents our camera’s memory card from getting too full.
When we pack these items, we are able to fit the Canon, GoPro (w/ accessories), and Joby Gorillapod into this small case. We pocket our smart phones and put the Macbook Air into the back compartment of the backpack. Any remaining electronics go into a packing cube, which can be rolled up and stuffed into the bag.
Tip #4 – Packing Method
You have probably heard this before, but rolling your clothes saves a lot of space! Brooke rolls almost every article of clothing in her bag. I choose to roll most of my clothes, but I also fold some to help use the compression straps effectively.
In addition to rolling your clothing, you should use packing cubes. These come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. We use the eBags medium cubes, because they fit very well into our eBags backpacks. Packing cubes help you to remain organized while shuffling through your bag. I use one cube for electronics and one for underwear and socks.
Tip #5 – Bring a Packable Day Bag
These day packs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. They fold down into a tiny pouch that you can toss into your main backpack. When you arrive at your destination, simply unfold the day pack and bring along whatever you need for that day’s activities. We use it to tote our cameras, water bottles, packable jackets, towels, change of clothes, umbrella, etc.
If you end up buying souvenirs and run out of room in your main backpack, these can be a lifesaver. Just use this bag as your second carry-on item and move some stuff over! It should easily fit under your seat on the plane.
As I mentioned at the top, these videos show us packing for our big 2.5-week Eurotrip.
I even had enough extra space in my bag to bring along a half-dozen golf balls to play at St. Andrews!
Packing light is the ticket to happy travels! Select a great bag and pack high-tech, layered clothing in a neutral color scheme. Carefully consider which compact electronics you want to bring, and pack them effectively with small cases. Roll your clothing to save space and use packing cubes to stay organized. Finally, grab a packable day bag to use while you’re out exploring, or as an extra carry-on for your souvenirs. With just a bit of thought and the right gear, you can pack for any trip in a carry-on bag! Cheers!
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